History Through Coins: World War I

Posted on 11/11/2019

The war that cost millions of lives and redrew much of the global map is reflected in coinage from a century ago.

On November 11, 1918, one of history’s most devastating wars came to an end with the signing of an armistice. Today, the US commemorates this day with Veterans Day, honoring those who have served in the nation’s armed forces. Other countries, including France, Belgium, Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada, mark this day as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day.

US 2018 World War I Centennial Silver Dollar Commemorative
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World War I was one of the deadliest conflicts of all time, with estimated death tolls of about 10 million in the armed forces in addition to about 8 million civilians, many of whom perished due to disease and famine. The “war to end all wars” continues to resonate even today. In December 2019, a movie titled “1917” will explore the conflict on the Western Front, in France.

In 2018, a US commemorative silver dollar was issued on the 100th anniversary of its end. Its reverse features poppies, which became symbolic of the war and veterans causes, thanks to the haunting poem “In Flanders Fields,” written in 1915 by a physician in the Canadian army who did not outlive the war.

World War I redrew the map of Europe.
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The fuse to the conflict was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria during a visit to Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, by a Serbian radical. In response, Austria-Hungary, initially with the full backing of Germany, issued a tough ultimatum to Serbia, which was partially rejected. Throughout July, the major powers in Europe prepared for war. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, triggering a series of diplomatic and military maneuvers over the next month that put Germany and Austria-Hungary (termed the “Central Powers”) at war with Russia, France, the United Kingdom, Belgium and Japan (the “Allied Powers”). The Ottoman Empire entered the war in November 1914 on the side of the Central Powers, as did Bulgaria in 1915. Italy joined the Allies in late 1915.

The Central Powers’ four principle members were Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria. Their leaders are depicted on the medal below:

  • Wilhelm II – Emperor of Germany (bottom right)
  • Franz Joseph I – Emperor of Austria (bottom left)
  • Mehmed V – Sultan of Ottoman Empire (top right)
  • Ferdinand I – King of Bulgaria (top left)

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Medal: 1916-dated Germany Silver Four Regents Medal (Zetzmann-3053), graded NGC MS 65 and pedigreed to the Morris Collection
Background: The leaders of all four main Central Powers (whose actual political influence varied greatly) were dead or deposed by the end of 1918.
Price realized: $1,020 in a July 2019 Heritage Auctions sale

The names of these leaders are featured on contemporary coins from their individual countries:


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Coin: German States – Prussia 1913A Five Mark, graded NGC MS 62 and pedigreed to the Eric P. Newman Collection
Background: German Emperor Wilhelm II is seen on the obverse of this coin. He was the oldest grandchild of England’s Queen Victoria and cousin to England’s King George V. Wilhelm II ruled from June 1888 until his abdication at the close of World War I in November 1918. After the war, he fled to the Netherlands, where he lived the rest of his life in exile.
Price Realized: $176 in a March 2014 Heritage Auctions sale


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Coin: 1914 Austria 100 Corona, graded NGC PL 55
Background: Franz Joseph I, the Emperor of Austria, who led his nation into the Great War, did not live to see its conclusion. He died in November 1916 at the age of 86. His grandnephew Charles I succeeded him as the last emperor of Austria, serving until November 1918.
Price realized: $3,240 in a September 2019 Heritage Auctions sale

Ottoman Empire

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Coin: Turkey AH1327//6 (1913-14) Gold 100 Kurush, graded NGC MS 63
Background: Mehmed V served as a figurehead of the Ottoman Empire from 1909 until his death in July 1918. His tughra, an Arabic calligraphic symbol with overlapping characters, appears on the obverse of this coin. Even before World War I started, his rule was marked by substantial territorial losses in the Balkans and North Africa in separate conflicts. He was the 35th (and second-to-last) sultan. When the sultanate was abolished in 1922, it ended an institution that stretched back to 1299.
Price realized: $456 in a July 2019 Heritage Auctions sale


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Coin: Bulgaria 1912 20 Leva, graded NGC AU 58 and pedigreed to the Eric P. Newman Collection
Background: Bulgaria remained neutral at the onset of World War I. Initially, both sides hoped for a quick victory, but the stalemated conflict dragged into 1915. This increased Bulgaria’s strategic importance, and the Central Powers won the frantic diplomatic struggle to win the country as an ally. A resounding military defeat in September 1918 forced Bulgaria to seek an armistice. Tsar Ferdinand I, seen on the coin here, abdicated amid the chaos In October.
Price realized: $646 in a January 2014 Heritage Auctions sale

Initially, the principle Allied Powers were the Russian Empire, the French Republic and the British Empire. Italy joined the Allies in 1915; the United States supported them through trade and entered the war on the Allied side near its end.

United Kingdom

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Coin: Great Britain 1914 Sovereign, graded NGC MS 64 and pedigreed to the Eric P. Newman Collection
Background: King George V appears on this 1914 Sovereign, the venerable series in use for more than two centuries. The legend of St. George and the Dragon is shown on the reverse. Unlike his counterparts in the Central Powers, George V was relatively new to the throne, and his rule stretched from 1910 to 1936.
Price realized: $528 in a January 2014 Heritage Auctions sale


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Coin: Russia 1914CNB Silver 5 Kopeks, graded NGC PF 67 Ultra Cameo and pedigreed to the D. Moore Collection
Background: This 1914 5 Kopeks shows the Russian coat of arms in use at the time of Nicholas II, who was Russia’s last emperor, ruling from 1894 to 1917. The two-headed eagle theme stretched back centuries. The war took a heavy toll on Russia, both on the front lines and beyond. Amid severe food shortages in early 1917, Nicholas II was forced to abdicate. By October 1917, Bolshevik revolutionaries had seized power in Russia, and they signed a peace treaty with the Central Powers a short time later. In July 1918, Nicholas II and his family were executed by Bolshevik forces.
Price realized: $2,820 in a January 2017 Heritage Auctions sale


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Coin: France 1914C 2 Francs, graded NGC MS 64 and pedigreed to the Morris Collection
Background: France’s Third Republic began in 1870 and survived until the Nazi army seized Paris in World War II. This coin’s optimistic figure sowing seeds contrasted sharply with the reality of World War I, in which France suffered over 1.1 million combat deaths.
Price realized: $109 in a July 2019 Heritage Auctions sale


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Coin: Italy 1914R Prova 5 Lire, graded NGC MS 66 and pedigreed to the D. Moore Collection
Background: This Italian coin shows Victor Emmanuel III, who ruled from 1900 to 1946, managing to survive both world wars before being forced to abdicate and live in exile. At the onset of World War I, Italy remained neutral, though it was technically aligned with Germany and Austria-Hungary. The emperor later pushed Italy into war on the side of the Allies in 1915. Most of Italy’s combat deaths were in northern Italy near the border with Austria-Hungary on the war’s Italian Front, which was at a stalemate through much of the war.
Price realized: $17,625 in a January 2017 Heritage Auctions sale

The United States

Though it was neutral for much of World War I, the conflict reverberated in a major redesign of US coinage in 1916. The United States had maintained an official position of neutrality for much of the war, but reinforced the United Kingdom and the Allies through commerce. German U-boat operations against this transatlantic shipping eventually turned American opinion in favor of entering the war against the Germans. This included the May 1915 sinking of the Lusitania, a passenger vessel also carrying supplies for the Allied war effort. A German U-boast sunk the British vessel off the coast of Ireland six days after it left New York, resulting in almost 1,200 deaths.

Even before the US declared war on Germany in April 1917, Americans could hear the war drums from Europe. This was reflected in the themes embraced for new US coin designs in the middle of the conflict. The Barber Dime, Quarter and Half Dollar had all fulfilled their minimum 25-year run, and there was broad agreement that they should be replaced.

1916 Barber Dime, 1916 Barber Quarter and 1915 Barber Half Dollar, the last year of issue for each series
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The reverse of the new Mercury Dime featured both a fasces (a symbol of strength) and an olive branch (a symbol of peace). Americans generally wanted peace, but there was also a belief that the US should be prepared for conflict. The coin is among the most beloved collector series of all time.

1916 Mercury Dime
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Introduced at the same time, the Standing Liberty Quarter echoed the message of the Mercury dime by depicting the Liberty figure on its obverse with a shield and an olive branch.

1916 Standing Liberty Quarter
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Meanwhile, the new Walking Liberty Half Dollar employed an unabashedly patriotic theme on its obverse: Liberty clad in an American flag. The design, by German immigrant Adolph A. Weinman, was so well-regarded that its obverse was revived in 1986 for use on the new US silver bullion coin, the American Eagle.

1916 Walking Liberty Half Dollar
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The US lost 53,402 service members in combat in World War I. In 1921, Congress authorized a coin to commemorate the “termination of the war between the Imperial German Government and the Government of the people of the United States.” The result was the Peace Dollar, which included an eagle in a tranquil pose above the word PEACE, a first for a US circulating coin. The Peace Dollar series ended in 1935, when it was no longer needed for commerce.

1921 High Relief Peace Dollar
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Other articles in this series
History Through Coins: Transylvania

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